Role of polar anticyclones and mid-latitude cyclones for Arctic summertime sea-ice melting


Annual minima in Arctic sea-ice extent and volume have been decreasing rapidly since the late 1970s, with substantial interannual variability. Summers with a particularly strong reduction of Arctic sea-ice extent are characterized by anticyclonic circulation anomalies from the surface to the upper troposphere. Here, we investigate the origin of these seasonal circulation anomalies by identifying individual Arctic anticyclones (with a lifetime of typically ten days) and analysing the air mass transport into these systems. We reveal that  these episodic upper-level induced Arctic anticyclones are relevant for generating seasonal circulation anomalies. Sea-ice reduction is systematically enhanced during the transient episodes with Arctic anticyclones and the seasonal reduction of sea-ice volume correlates with the area-averaged frequency of Arctic anticyclones poleward of 70° N (correlation coefficient of 0.57). A trajectory analysis shows that these anticyclones result from extratropical cyclones injecting extratropical air masses with low potential vorticity into the Arctic upper troposphere. Our results emphasize the fundamental role of extratropical cyclones and associated diabatic processes in establishing Arctic anticyclones and, in turn, seasonal circulation anomalies, which are of key importance for understanding the variability of summertime Arctic sea-ice melting.

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Fig. 1: Vertically coherent, seasonal geopotential height anomalies are the result of Arctic anticyclones.
Fig. 2: Time series of sea-ice volume change anomalies relative to climatology and area-averaged seasonal mean frequency of Arctic anticyclones for the summers of 1979 to 2016.
Fig. 3: Statistical analysis of sea-ice reduction and meteorological parameters related to Arctic anticyclones.
Fig. 4: Intrusions of extratropical air into the Arctic lead to the formation of Arctic anticyclones.


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L.P. acknowledges funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), Grants P2EZP2_162267 and P300P2_174307. We are very grateful for the technical support from and discussions with H. Binder, M. Boettcher, C. Grams, S. Pfahl and M. Sprenger (all at ETH Zurich) and N. Blaser (UiB). Input from T. Schneider (Caltech) was very helpful for considering surface radiation anomalies associated with Arctic anticyclones.

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H.W. initiated this study and calculated the trajectories. L.P analysed the PIOMAS data and performed the statistical analyses. Both authors discussed the results and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heini Wernli.

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Wernli, H., Papritz, L. Role of polar anticyclones and mid-latitude cyclones for Arctic summertime sea-ice melting. Nature Geosci 11, 108–113 (2018).

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